“We don’t know who the opposition is!”
Fainéant pundits and politicians are once again reviving this trope, now as an excuse for removing America entirely from any influence in the direction of Syria’s revolution. In the spring of 2011, it was the standard plaint about the Libyan rebels. In both cases, this demand for knowledge shows a lack of understanding about how Muslim societies under dictatorship have evolved.
This “knowing” is often meant both in the sense of personal acquaintance and of factual knowledge that can be verified online. (I am leaving aside what, if anything more, American intelligence agencies know but are keeping to themselves.) And in truth, more than a year later, while we know a lot more about the top members of the National Transition Council and some of the candidates for the newly elected National Assembly, we still don’t have the kind of information in digital form that accumulates around even, say, a candidate for a congressional seat in the US. Some of the NTC members have never said much to the press, either Arabic- or English-language. But Libya has not become a failed state or a breeding ground for extremists, and in fact it rejected the Muslim Brotherhood in the July 7th elections for the National Assembly. Somehow, Libya has survived despite American pundits’ lack of full information.
The demand for facts deserves some discussion. Generally, it is hard to get beyond basic biographical information for people living under Arab dictatorships. Only their friends or schoolmates will know much, for a number of reasons.
First of all, information does not exactly flow freely in those societies. People are averse to putting their names out there in a country without the rule of law. An American who wants to be known as prominent in his or her community will belong to many civil society organizations and clubs that have Web presences. Not so in the countries now undergoing upheaval. One of the first effects of the revolution in Benghazi last spring was the efflorescence of hundreds of such organizations. But Syria (and Yemen, and Bahrain) is not there yet.
Second of all, these countries don’t have a free press. Journalists don’t write hard-hitting profiles of prominent businessmen, much less military officers or politicians. In dictatorships, everything is political precisely because there is no politics in our sense. Every business deal has a political context. So even if an opposition leader has emerged from the business community, there is likely to be little about him online.
Finally, in my experience in Libya and Egypt, many people in the Muslim world think that Facebook is the Internet. Why? Because the idea of a social network makes a lot of sense in countries where everything is about relationships and there is no rule of law. That’s how you get things done. Libyans, for example, share information on Facebook that never makes it on the Web and thus isn’t searchable. (They also use Facebook to circulate news articles of interest.) So information circulates among people who already know each other, but it does not reach strangers.
This helps explain why use of Twitter is so minimal in many revolutionary contexts. Libyans were not allowed to use Twitter under Qaddafi and it is still not popular. People I talk with about this don’t really understand the premise of Twitter, that strangers will want to experience your sensibility or that it can be used to convey breaking news worldwide. Unfortunately, it’s mainly been foreign reporters and expats who use Twitter to inform the world of developments.
There are interesting statistics, recently published, on Twitter use in the Muslim world. Turkey, with 73 million people, has a million active Twitter users—but Libya, with 6 million, has barely 4,450, and Syria, with 20 million, just 8,590. Libya does better on Facebook, with 14,000 active users. Turkey has 12-times the population of Libya, but clearly Libya and Syria are under-represented on Twitter. While it could be argued that many Syrians are afraid to Tweet, that isn't true in Libya.
All of this suggests that Americans are ignorant of more than just who the opposition is in places like Syria and Yemen and Bahrain. We are ignorant of how these societies operate.
Photo Credit: Freedom House